FILM REVIEW: WAR MACHINE Provides Brutal Satire About Our Failings
There’s a subtle brilliance in Netflix’s upcoming drama satire War Machine in those moments when it incisively goes for the jugular of precisely what is wrong with the never-ending American engine of battle. Brad Pitt, as fictionalized general Glenn McMahon, has a contorted hand permanently paralyzed as a claw that jars you when he speaks with his determined resolved. It is the movie in a nutshell: a sometimes strained but nevertheless memorable introspective piece on our modern failures as a society.
McMahon gets sent to Afghanistan by the newly-elected President Obama. Full of hubris to go along his decorations, he believes he is the answer that has long-eluded his predecessors in the quest for a successful resolution. But even the legendary are in for a rude awakening, certainly when you have to deal with the space-filling Afghan President Karzai (an on point Ben Kingsley), the somewhat cynical Madame Secretary of State and her boss, and the absolutely contemptuous diplomats.
The tragedy is in fact a human one, with the line men and women of our armed forces lost at sea betwixt the tides of power and contrivance, between the realities of war and peace that have been constructed for them (and against them) despite their best intentions. The parade of horribles that prances before the general and his loyalists (who include Topher Grace and Anthony Michael Hall) span the globe from unruly Europeans (a fantastic Tilda Swinton) to pompous and arrogant Americans.
None does more damage, though, than the Rolling Stone reporter who writes an explosive expose that brings the entire Kabuki down. That is the ultimate catastrophe of it all, that such a well-intentioned man who had to cut through tape (of the red variety) and wait for staged elections to solve the impossible problem he was tasked with solving was finished in such a pedestrian way. Heroes fall from grace in the most unexpected manner.
War Machine does have one or two rough edges, though Animal Kingdom director David Michod perfectly mixes the comedy with the seriousness. There are moments when the staging of the stagecraft does become a tad too much. The first twenty-five minutes or so are somewhat clunked up with an interminable narrator that is trying too much to set it all up and not let the Full Metal Jacket rag-team speak for itself. Exposition gets in the way of exhibition and the entire exercise nearly fails at the outset.
But the ship rights itself as soon as the actors are allowed to do their thing. Despite the purposefully stereotypical personalities–the loyal goon, the angry mad man, the silly ingénue–there is something clever in the whole exercise. The movie is aware of itself, aware of the political climate from which it comes, and, most importantly of all, quite aware of how ridiculous the entire thing is. At the end of the day, the message is clear: war is a tragedy in many more ways than the usual killings (of which the are respectfully many).
War Machine aims to create a character for the ages. It does not quite get there–the Tarantino influence is too thick, the situational setups too obvious. But it does achieve greatness in its own right, it does deliver its message in a somewhat surprising fashion, without seemingly trying to hard, towards the end of the picture. It is then that you realize that history waits for no man, that the powers that be really are that powerful because they cannot be stopped and bugs will be quashed by any means necessary.
War is a terrible thing, and your entire humanity is the price to be paid. That is the moral of the story, nay, of history, and War Machine knows that it’s no laughing matter while it encourages you to laugh about it. The only other alternative is to cry. And you may do that as well.